Bulls by Peter Peryer


This article first appeared as 'Small wonders' in The Press on 15 March 2013

Peter Peryer Bulls 2006. Photograph. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery, purchased 2006. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.

Peter Peryer Bulls 2006. Photograph. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery, purchased 2006. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.

Small wonders

A degree in English and a self-confessed ambivalence about picking up a camera might not seem promising attributes on which to build a photographic career, but that doesn't seem to have hindered Peter Peryer, New Zealand's master of the ordinary made extraordinary. Peryer took his first photographs in his early 30s and rapidly found them in demand for significant international exhibitions and public collections. A ferocious and pre-emptive editor of his own work, he takes surprisingly few images – spending much more time thinking about the effect he wants to create than in the act of capturing it. Those that make it through are always distinguishable by both their simplicity and their intensity.

Bulls is one of a small suite of photographs made in 2006. Collectively titled Silver, the four other black and white images make for an eclectic mix– a woodpigeon poised on a power line like a plump semibreve, seven Iceland Poppy buds, an electrical clip and the delicate tendrils of a plant from the artist's garden.

Like all Peryer's photographs, Bulls undermines our certainty about what we see. At first glance, his arcing herd appears naturalistic, moving steadily out of view in a tight half-moon of horn and muscle. Closer inspection, however, calls for a giddying recalibration of scale; those gleaming black hides have the sheen of plastic and these bulls are the miniature kind hung around bottles of Sangre de Toro, the Spanish red wine found on many New Zealand dinner tables in the 1980s.

The image's impact relies on the smallest of details. Each bull has been positioned so its head leans heavily over its front foot, which lifts the back leg up slightly to provide the illusion of forward movement. That single, careful choice is central to the mood of the photograph; rocked back on their hind legs the determined gravitas of the bulls would transform into aggression, radiating bravado rather than unyielding power.

Peryer's fascination with rhythm, rhyme, metaphor and pattern means his photographs have much in common with poetry and in 2006 Paul McNamara, the director of Wanganui's McNamara Gallery, invited poet Bill Manhire to respond to the Silver suite. His resulting poem, 'The Peryer Arms', made reference to this image: "Formica paddock and the curve of the planet. A little bollocks of bulls!". Like Manhire's words, and like a good haiku, Peryer's images are simple, unexpected and acutely precise – so perhaps that English degree was some help, after all.

Felicity Milburn, Curator, Christchurch Art Gallery